"Oh, law, now, Miss! but they'll fret to part with you."
"No they won't. Anyhow, it isn't your affair. I'm going away as soon as I possibly can. Can you tell me where the nearest railway station is?"
"There's none closer than Everton, and that's a matter of five mile from here."
"I must get there as quickly as possible. What road shall I take?"
"Do you think, Miss, I'd let a pretty young lady like you trape the lanes in the dead of night? No, no; carrier goes between two and three in the morning. You might go with him, if you must go."
"That is a good thought. Where does the carrier live?"
"Three doors from here. I'll run round presently and tell him to call."
"Thank you. Do you think nine-and-fourpence-halfpenny will take me to Bath?"
"To Bath, Miss? It might, if you condescended to third class."
"Third class will do very well. Did you ever hear Polly Maybright speak of an aunt of hers, a Mrs. Cameron?"
Mrs. Ricketts, whose back was half turned to Flower while she shut and locked the box out of which she had taken the precious nine-and-fourpence-halfpenny, now sprang to her feet, and began to speak in a tone of great excitement.
"Did I hear of her?" she exclaimed. "Did I hear of the woman—for lady she ain't—what turned my Maggie out of her good place, and near broke Miss Polly's heart? Don't mention Mrs. Cameron, please, Miss Flower, for talk of her I won't; set eyes on her I wouldn't, no, not if I was to receive a pound for it!"
"You needn't get so excited," said Flower; "you have not got to see Polly's aunt; only I thought perhaps you could give me her address, for I am going to her to-morrow."
"I wouldn't, Miss, if I was you."
"Yes, you would if you were me. What is Mrs. Cameron's address?"
"I don't know as I can rightly tell you, Miss."
"Yes, you must. I see you know it quite well."
"Well then, well then—you won't like her a bit, Miss Flower."
"What's her address?"
"Jasper Street; I think it's Jasper Street."
"And the number? She doesn't live in the whole of Jasper Street."
"Now, was it a one and a six or a one and a seven?" queried Mrs. Ricketts. "Oh, Miss! if I was you, I wouldn't go near her; but I think her number is a one and a seven."
"Seventeen, you mean."
"Yes, that's it; I was never great at counting."
RELICS AND A WELCOME.
Mrs. Cameron's house in Bath was decidedly old-fashioned. It was a large, solemn, handsome mansion; its windows shone from constant cleaning; its paint was always fresh, its Venetian blinds in perfect order.
When a certain wild, untidy, almost disreputable-looking girl ran up its snow-white steps, and rang its highly polished brass bell, the neat parlor maid who answered her summons stared at her, and doubted a good deal if Mrs. Cameron could see her.
"You had better step into the hall for a moment," said the maidservant, "and I'll inquire if my missis is at leisure; but if it's the new housemaid's place you've come after——"
Flower gasped; she drew herself up, raised her hand, and took off her small black velvet cap.
"You forget yourself!" she said, with a haughtiness which did not ill become her, notwithstanding her untidy and dishevelled state. "My name is Flower Dalrymple, and I have come from Sleepy Hollow. Please let your mistress know directly."
The parlor maid, who saw her mistake, was profuse in apologies.
She showed Flower into a dismal-looking dining room, and went upstairs.
"Who is it, Ann?" asked an anxious voice as she prepared to ascend the richly-carpeted stairs.
A door was opened at the end of the passage, and a fusty, dusty-looking little man put in an appearance.
"Who is it, Ann? Any one for me?"
"A young lady as wants to see the missis, sir. Oh, Mr. Cameron! what a deal of dust you has brought out into the 'all!"
The little man looked meekly down at his dusty garments.
"I have just been unpacking my last crate of curiosities from China, Ann. Where is the young lady? Perhaps she would like to see the relics."
"No, sir, that I'm sure she wouldn't; she's all blown and spent like. She's for all the world like a relic herself."
Ann tripped lightly upstairs, and Mr. Cameron, pushing his spectacles high up on his bald forehead, looked with an anxious glance to right and left. Then very quickly on tiptoe he crossed the hall, opened the dining-room door, and went in.
"How are you, young lady? If you are very quick, I can get you into my sanctum sanctorum. I am just unpacking Chinese relics. I trust, I hope, you are fond of relics."
Flower started to her feet.
"I thought, I certainly thought, Polly said Mrs. Cameron," she remarked. "I don't think I shall be at all afraid to live with you. I don't exactly know what Chinese relics are, but I should love to see them."
"Then quick, my dear, quick! We haven't a minute to spare. She's sure to be down in a jiffy. Now then, step on tiptoe across the hall. Ann has the quickest ears, and she invariably reports. She's not a nice girl, Ann isn't. She hasn't the smallest taste for relics. My dear, there's an education in this room, but no one, no one who comes to the house, cares to receive it."
While the little man was talking, he was rushing across the wide hall, and down a long passage, Flower's hand clasped in his. Finally he pushed open a baize-lined door, hastily admitted himself and Flower, and closed it behind them. The sanctum sanctorum was small, stuffy, dusty, dirty. There were several chairs, but they were all piled with relics, two or three tables were also crammed with tokens of the past. Flower was very weary, the dust and dirt made her sneeze, and she looked longingly for even the smallest corner of a chair on which to seat herself.
"I do want some breakfast so badly," she began.
"Breakfast! My love, you shall have it presently. Now then, we'll begin. This case that I have just unpacked contains teeth and a small portion of a jawbone. Ah! hark! what is that? She is coming already! Will that woman never leave me in peace? My love, the object of my life, the one object of my whole life, has been to benefit and educate the young. I thought at last I had found a pupil, but, ah, I fear she is very angry!"
The sound of a sharp voice was heard echoing down the stairs and along the passage, a sharp, high-pitched voice, accompanied by the sharper, shriller barking of a small dog.
"Zeb! I say, Zeb! Zebedee, if you have taken that young girl into your sanctum, I desire you to send her out this moment."
The little man's face grew pale; he pushed his spectacles still higher on his forehead.
"There, my love, do you hear her? I did my best for you. I was beginning your education."
"Zeb! Zeb! Open the door this minute," was shouted outside.
"You'll remember, my love, to your dying day, that I showed you three teeth and the bit of jawbone of a Chinaman who died a thousand years ago."
"Zeb!" thundered the voice.
"Yap! yap! yap!" barked the small dog.
"You must go, my dear. She's a powerful woman. She always has her way. There, let me push you out. I wouldn't have her catch sight of me at this moment for fifty pounds."
The green baize door was opened a tiny bit, a violent shove was administered to Flower's back, and she found herself in the arms of Mrs. Cameron, and in extreme danger of having her nose bitten off by the infuriated Scorpion.
"Just like Zebedee!" exclaimed the good lady. "Always struggling to impart the dry bones of obsolete learning to the young! Come this way, Miss—Miss—what's your name?"
"An outlandish title, worthy of Sleepy Hollow. I have not an idea who you are, but come into the dining-room."
"Might I—— might I have a little breakfast?"
"Bless me, the child looks as if she were going to faint! Ann, Ann, I say! Down, Scorpion! You shall have no cream if you bark any more. Ann, bring half a glass of port wine over here, and make some breakfast for Miss—Miss Rymple as fast as you can."
"Don't worry me, child. I can't get my tongue round long names. Now, what is it you are called? Daisy? What in the world have you come to me for, Daisy?"
"Well, and isn't Daisy a flower? Now then, Daisy Rymple, tell your story as quickly as possible. I don't mind giving you breakfast, but I'm as busy as possible to-day. I've six committee meetings on between now and two o'clock. Say your say, Daisy, and then you can go."
"But I've come to stay."
"To stay? Good gracious! Scorpion, down, sir! Now, young lady, have you or have you not taken leave of your senses?"
"No, really. May I tell you my story?"
"If you take ten minutes over it; I won't give you longer time."
"I'll try to get it into ten minutes. I'm an Australian, and so is David. David is my brother. We came over in the Australasia about six weeks ago. Dr. Maybright met us in London, and took us down to Sleepy Hollow."
"Bless the man!—just like him. Had he any responsible matron or spinster in the house, child?"
"I don't know; I don't think so. There was Helen and Polly and——"
"I don't want to hear about Polly! Go on; your ten minutes will soon be up. Go on."
"A couple of days ago we went on a picnic—I have a way of getting into awful passions—and Polly—Polly vexed me."
"Oh, she vexed you? You're not the first that young miss has vexed, I can tell you."
"She vexed me; I oughtn't to have minded; I got into a passion; I felt awful; I ran away with baby."
"Goodness me! what is the world coming to? You don't mean to say you have dared to bring the infant here, Daisy?"
"No, no. I ran away with her on to the moors. I was so frightened, for I thought baby had died. Then Maggie came, and she saved her life, and she was brought home again."
"That's a good thing; but I can't see why you are troubling me with this story."
"Yesterday morning I gave baby back to Dr. Maybright. He's not like other people; he looked at me, and his look pierced my heart. He said something, too, and then for the first time I began to be really, really sorry. I went up to my room; I stayed there alone all day; I was miserable."
"Served you right if you were, Daisy."
"In the evening I was so hungry, I went down for food. I met Firefly; she told me the worst."
"Then the baby died? You really are an awful girl, Daisy Rymple."
"No. The baby is pretty well, and Polly, who sprained her foot running after me, is pretty well; but it's—it's Dr. Maybright—the best man I ever met—a man who could have helped me and made me a—a good girl—he's very, very ill, and they think he may die. He wasn't strong, and he was out all night looking for baby and me, and he got a bad chill, and he—he may be dead now. It was my doing; Fly told me so."
Flower laid her head on the table; her long sustained fortitude gave way; she sobbed violently.
Her tears stained Mrs. Cameron's snowy table-linen; her head was pressed down on her hands; her face was hidden. She was impervious in her woe to any angry words or to the furious barking of a small dog.
At last a succession of violent shakes recalled her to herself.
"Will you sit up?—spoiling my damask and shedding tears into the excellent coffee I have made for you. Ah, that's better; now I can see your face. Don't you know that you are a very naughty, dangerous sort of girl?"
"Yes, I know that quite well. Mother always said that if I didn't check my passion I'd do great mischief some day."
"And right she was. I don't suppose the table-linen will ever get over those coffee stains mixed with tears. Now, have the goodness to tell me, Daisy, or Ivy, or whatever you are called, why you have come to tell this miserable, disgraceful story to me."
"Fly said they none of them could love me now."
"I should think not, indeed! No one will love such a naughty girl. What have you come to me for?"
"I thought I could stay with you for a little, until there was another home found for me."
"Oh, ah! Now at last we have come to the bottom of the mystery. And I suppose you thought I'd pet you and make much of you?"
"I didn't. I thought you'd scold me and be very cross. I came to you as a punishment, for Polly always said you were the crossest woman she ever met."
"Polly said that? Humph! Now eat up your breakfast quickly, Daisy. I'm going out. Don't stir from this room until I come back."
Mrs. Cameron, who had come downstairs in her bonnet, slammed the dining-room door after her, walked across the hall, and let herself out. It did not take her many minutes to reach the telegraph office. From, there she sent a brief message to Helen Maybright:
"Sorry your father is ill. Expect me this evening with Daisy Rymple."
VERY ROUGH WEATHER.
With all her easy and languishing ways, Flower Dalrymple had often gone through rough times. Her life in Australia had given to her experiences both of the extreme of luxury and the extreme of roughing, but never in the course of her young life did she go through a more uncomfortable journey than that from Mrs. Cameron's house in Bath to Sleepy Hollow. It was true that Scorpion, Mrs. Cameron, and Flower, traveled first-class; it was true also that where it was necessary for them to drive the best carriages to be procured were at their service; but, as on all and every occasion Scorpion was king of the ceremonies these arrangements did not add to Flower's comfort. Mrs. Cameron, who felt seriously angry with the young girl, addressed all her conversation to the dog, and as the dog elected to sit on Flower's lap, and snapped and snarled whenever she moved, and as Mrs. Cameron's words were mostly directed through the medium of Scorpion at her, her position was not an agreeable one.
"Ah-ha, my dear doggie!" said the good lady. "Somebody has come to the wrong box, has she not? Somebody thought I would take her in, and be kind to her, and pet her, and give her your cream, did she not? But no one shall have my doggie's cream; no, that they shan't!"
"Mrs. Cameron," said Flower, when these particularly clever and lucid remarks had continued for nearly an hour, "may I open the window of the carriage at this side? I'm quite stifling."
Mrs. Cameron laid a firm, fat hand upon the window cord, and bent again over the pampered Scorpion.
"And is my doggie's asthma not to be considered for the sake of somebody who ought not to be here, who was never invited nor wished for, and is now to be returned like a bad penny to where she came from? Is my own dearest little dog to suffer for such a person's whims? Oh, fie! oh, fie! Well, come here my Scorpion; your mistress won't reject you."
For Flower, in a fit of ungovernable temper, had suddenly dashed the petted form of Scorpion to the ground.
The poor angry girl now buried herself in the farthest corner of the railway carriage. From there she could hear Mrs. Cameron muttering about "somebody's" temper, and hoping that "somebody" would get her deserts.
These remarks, uttered several times, frightened Flower so much that at last she looked up, and said, in a queer, startled voice:
"You don't think Dr. Maybright is going to die? You can't be so awfully wicked as to think that."
"Oh, we are wicked, are we, Scorpion?" said Mrs. Cameron, her fat hand gently stroking down Scorpion's smooth fur from tip to tail. "Never mind, Scorpion, my own; never mind. When the little demon of temper gets into somebody she isn't quite accountable, is she?"
Flower wondered if any restraining power would keep her from leaping out of the window.
But even the weariest journey comes to an end at last, and twenty-four hours after she had left Sleepy Hollow, Flower, feeling the most subdued, the most abject, the most brow-beaten young person in Christendom, returned to it. Toward the end of the journey she felt impervious to Mrs. Cameron's sly allusions, and Scorpion growled and snapped at her in vain. Her whole heart was filled with one over-powering dread. How should she find the Doctor? Was he better? Was he worse? Or had all things earthly come to an end for him; and had he reached a place where even the naughtiest girl in all the world could vex and trouble him no longer?
When the hired fly drew up outside the porch, Flower suddenly remembered her first arrival—the gay "Welcome" which had waved above her head; the kind, bright young faces that had come out of the darkness to greet her; the voice of the head of the house, that voice which she was so soon to learn to love, uttering the cheeriest and heartiest words of greeting. Now, although Mrs. Cameron pulled the hall-door bell with no uncertain sound, no one, for a time at least, answered the summons, and Flower, seizing her opportunity, sprang out of the fly and rushed into the house.
The first person she met, the very first, was Polly. Polly was sitting at the foot of the stairs, all alone. She had seated herself on the bottom step. Her knees were huddled up almost to her chin. Her face was white, and bore marks of tears. She scarcely looked up when Flower ran to her.
"Polly! Polly! How glad I am you at least are not very ill."
"Is that you, Flower?" asked Polly.
She did not seem surprised, or in any way affected.
"Yes, my leg does still ache very much. But what of that? What of anything now? He is worse! They have sent for another doctor. The doctor from London is upstairs; he's with him. I'm waiting here to catch him when he comes down, for I must know the very worst."
"The very worst!" echoed Flower in a feeble tone.
She tumbled down somehow on to the stair beside Polly, and the next instant her death-like face lay in Polly's lap.
"Now, my dear, you need not be in the least frightened," said a shrill voice in Polly's ears. "A most troublesome young person! a most troublesome! She has just fainted; that's all. Let me fetch a jug of cold water to pour over her."
"Is that you, Aunt Maria?" said Polly. "Oh, yes, there was a telegram, but we forgot all about it. And is that Scorpion, and is he going to bark? But he mustn't! Please kneel down here, Aunt Maria, and hold Flower's head. Whatever happens, Scorpion mustn't bark. Give him to me!"
Before Mrs. Cameron had time to utter a word or in any way to expostulate, she found herself dragged down beside Flower, Flower's head transferred to her capacious lap, and the precious Scorpion snatched out of her arms. Polly's firm, muscular young fingers tightly held the dog's mouth, and in an instant Scorpion and she were out of sight. Notwithstanding all his fighting and struggling and desperate efforts to free himself, she succeeded in carrying him to a little deserted summer pagoda at a distant end of the garden. Here she locked him in, and allowed him to suffer both cold and hunger for the remainder of the night.
There are times when even the most unkind are softened. Mrs. Cameron was not a sympathetic person. She was a great philanthropist, it is true, and was much esteemed, especially by those people who did not know her well. But love, the real name for what the Bible calls charity, seldom found an entrance into her heart. The creature she devoted most affection to was Scorpion. But now, as she sat in the still house, which all the time seemed to throb with a hidden intense life; when she heard in the far distance doors opening gently and stifled sobs and moans coming from more than one young throat; when she looked down at the death-like face of Flower—she really did forget herself, and rose for once to the occasion.
Very gently—for she was a strong woman—she lifted Flower, and carried her into the Doctor's study. There she laid her on a sofa, and gave her restoratives, and when Flower opened her dazed eyes she spoke to her more kindly than she had done yet.
"I have ordered something for you, which you are to take at once," she said. "Ah! here it is! Thank you, Alice. Now, Daisy, drink this off at once."
It was a beaten-up egg in milk and brandy, and when Flower drank it she felt no longer giddy, and was able to sit up and look around her.
In the meantime Polly and all the other children remained still as mice outside the Doctor's door. They had stolen on tiptoe from different quarters of the old house to this position, and now they stood perfectly still, not looking at one another or uttering a sound, but with their eyes fixed with pathetic earnestness and appeal at the closed door. When would the doctors come out? When would the verdict be given? Minutes passed. The children found this time of tension an agony.
"I can't bear it!" sobbed Firefly at last.
But the others said, "Hush!" so peremptorily, and with such a total disregard for any one person's special emotions, that the little girl's hysterical fit was nipped in the bud.
At last there was a sound of footsteps within the room, and the local practitioner, accompanied by the great physician from London, opened the door carefully and came out.
"Go in and sit with your father," said one of the doctors to Helen.
Without a word she disappeared into the darkened room, and all the others, including little Pearl in Nurse's arms, followed the medical men downstairs. They went into the Doctor's study, where Flower was still lying very white and faint on the sofa. Fortunately for the peace of the next quarter of an hour Mrs. Cameron had taken herself off in a vain search for Scorpion.
"Now," said Polly, when they were all safely in the room—she took no notice of Flower; she did not even see her—"now please speak; please tell us the whole truth at once."
She went up and laid her hand on the London physician's arm.
"The whole truth? But I cannot do that, my dear young lady," he said, in hearty, genial tones. "Bless me!" turning to the other doctor, "do all these girls and boys belong to Maybright? And so you want the whole truth, Miss—Miss——"
"I'm called Polly, sir."
"The whole truth, Polly? Only God knows that. Your father was in a weak state of health; he had a shock and a chill. We feared mischief to the brain. Oh, no, he is by no means out of the wood yet. Still I have hope of him; I have great hope. What do you say, Strong? Symptoms have undoubtedly taken a more favorable turn during the last hour or two."
"I quite agree with you, Sir Andrew," said the local practitioner, with a profound bow.
"Then, my dear young lady, my answer to you, to all of you, is that, although only God knows the whole truth, there is, in my opinion, considerable hope—yes, considerable. I'll have a word with you in the other room, Strong. Good-by, children; keep up your spirits. I have every reason to think well of the change which has set in within the last hour."
The moment the doctors left the room Polly looked eagerly round at the others.
"Only God knows the truth," she said. "Let us pray to Him this very minute. Let's get on our knees at once."
They all did so, and all were silent.
"What are we to say, Polly?" asked Firefly at last. "I never did 'aloud prayers' since mother died."
"Hush! There's the Lord's Prayer," said Polly. "Won't somebody say it? My voice is choking."
"I will," said Flower.
Nobody had noticed her before; now she came forward, knelt down by Polly's side, and repeated the prayer of prayers in a steady voice. When it was over, she put up her hands to her face, and remained silent.
"What are you saying now?" asked Firefly, pulling at her skirt.
"Something about myself."
"What is that?" they all asked.
"I've been the wickedest girl in the whole of England. I have been asking God to forgive me."
"Oh, poor Flower!" echoed the children, touched by her dreary, forsaken aspect.
Polly put her arms round her and kissed her.
"We have quite forgiven you, so, of course, God will," she said.
"How noble you are! Will you be my friend?"
"Yes, if you want to have me. Oh, children!" continued Polly, "do you think we can any of us ever do anything naughty again if father gets better?"
"He will get better now," said Firefly.
A NOVEL HIDING-PLACE.
Whether it was the children's faith or the children's prayer, certain it is that from that moment the alarming symptoms in connection with Dr. Maybright's illness abated. It was some days before he was pronounced out of danger, but even that happy hour arrived in due course, and one by one his children were allowed to come to see him.
Mrs. Cameron meanwhile arranged matters pretty much as she pleased downstairs. Helen, who from the first had insisted on nursing her father herself, had no time to housekeep. Polly's sprained ankle would not get well in a minute, and, besides, other circumstances had combined to reduce that young lady's accustomed fire and ardor. Consequently, Mrs. Cameron had matters all her own way, and there is not the least doubt that she and Scorpion between them managed to create a good deal of moral and physical disquietude.
"Well," she said to herself, "when all is said and done, that poor man who is on the flat of his back upstairs is my sainted Helen's husband; and if at such a time as this Maria Cameron should harbor ill-will in her heart it would but ill become the leader of some of the largest philanthropic societies in Bath. No, for the present my place is here, and no black looks, nor surly answers, nor impertinent remarks, will keep Maria Cameron from doing her duty."
Accordingly Mrs. Power gave a month's notice, and Alice wept so profusely that her eyes for the time being were seriously injured. Scorpion bit the new kitchen-maid Jane twice, who went into hysterics and expected hydrophobia daily. But notwithstanding these and sundry other fracases, Mrs. Cameron steadily pursued her way. She looked into account-books, she interviewed the butcher, she dismissed the baker, she overhauled the store-room, and after her own fashion—and a disagreeable fashion it was—did a good deal of indirect service to the family.
Flower in particular she followed round so constantly and persistently that the young girl began to wonder if Mrs. Cameron seriously and really intended to punish her, by now bereaving her of her senses.
"I don't think I can stand it much longer," said Flower to Polly. "Last night I was in bed and asleep when she came in. I was awfully tired, and had just fallen into my first sleep, when that detestable dog snapped at my nose. There was Mrs. Cameron standing in the middle of the room with a lighted candle in her hand. 'Get up,' she said. 'What for?' I asked. 'Get up this minute!' she said, and she stamped her foot. I thought perhaps she would disturb your father, for my room is not far away from his, so I tumbled out of bed. 'Now, what is the matter?' I asked. 'The matter?' said Mrs. Cameron. 'That's the matter! and that's the matter! and that's the matter!' And what do you think? She was pointing to my stockings and shoes, and my other clothes. I always do leave them in a little heap in the middle of the floor; they're perfectly comfortable there, and it doesn't injure them in the least. Well! that awful woman woke me out of my sleep to put them by. She stood over me, and made me fold the clothes up, and shake out the stockings, and put the shoes under a chair, and all the time that fiendish dog was snapping at my heels. Oh, it's intolerable! I'll be in a lunatic asylum if this goes on much longer!"
Polly laughed; she could not help it; and Firefly and David, who were both listening attentively, glanced significantly at one another.
The next morning, very, very early, Firefly was awakened by a bump. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and murmured, "All right!" under her breath.
"Put something on, Fly, and be quick," whispered David's voice from the door.
Firefly soon tumbled into a warm frock, a thick outdoor jacket, and a little fur cap; her shoes and stockings were tumbled on anyhow. Holding her jacket together—for she was in too great a hurry to fasten it—she joined David.
"I did it last night," he said; "it's a large hole; he'll never be discovered there. And now the thing is to get him."
"Oh, Dave, how will you manage that?"
"Trust me, Fly. Even if I do run a risk, I don't care. Anything is better than the chance of Flower getting into another of her passions."
"Oh, anything, of course," said Fly. "Are you going to kill him, Dave?"
"No. The hole is big; he can move about in it. What I thought of was this—we'd sell him."
"Sell him? But he isn't ours."
"No matter! He's a public nuisance, and he must be got rid of. There are often men wandering on the moor who would be glad to buy a small dog like Scorpion. They'd very likely give us a shilling for him. Then we'd drop the shilling into Mrs. Cameron's purse. Don't you see? She'd never know how it got there. Then, you understand, it would really have been Mrs. Cameron who sold Scorpion."
"Oh, delicious!" exclaimed Fly. "She'd very likely spend the money on postage stamps to send round begging charity letters."
"So Scorpion would have done good in the end," propounded David. "But come along now, Fly. The difficult thing is to catch the little brute."
It was still very early in the morning, and the corridors and passages were quite dark. David and Fly, however, could feel their way about like little mice, and they soon found themselves outside the door of the green room, which was devoted to Mrs. Cameron.
"Do you feel this?" said David, putting out his hand and touching Fly. "This is a long towel; I'm winding part of it round my hand and arm. I don't want to get hydrophobia, like poor Jane. Now, I'm going to creep into Mrs. Cameron's room so quietly, that even Scorpion won't wake. I learned how to do that from the black people in Australia. You may stand there, Fly, but you won't hear even a pin fall till I come back with Scorpion."
"If I don't hear, I feel," replied Fly. "My heart does thump so. I'm just awfully excited. Don't be very long away, Dave."
By this time David had managed to unhasp the door. He pushed it open a few inches, and then lay flat down on his face and hands. The next moment he had disappeared into the room, and all was profoundly still. Fly could hear through the partly open door the gentle and regularly kept-up sound of a duet of snoring. After three or four minutes the duet became a solo. Still there was no other sound, not a gasp, not even the pretense of a bark. More minutes passed by. Had David gone to sleep on the floor? Was Scorpion dead that he had ceased to snore?
These alarming thoughts had scarcely passed through her mind before David rejoined her.
"He's wrapped up in this towel," he said. "He's kicking with his hind legs, but he can't get a squeak out; now come along."
Too careless and happy in the success of their enterprise even to trouble to shut Mrs. Cameron's door, the two children rushed downstairs and out of the house. They effected their exit easily by opening the study window. In a moment or two they were in the shrubbery.
"The hole isn't here," said David. "Somebody might find him here and bring him back, and that would never do. Do you remember Farmer Long's six-acre field?"
"Where he keeps the bull?" exclaimed Fly. "You haven't made the hole there, Dave?"
"Yes, I have, in one corner! It's the best place in all the world, for not a soul will dare to come near the field while the bull is there. You needn't be frightened, Fly! He's always taken home at night! He's not there now. But don't you see how he'll guard Scorpion all day? Even Mrs. Cameron won't dare to go near the field while the bull is there."
"I see!" responded Fly, in an appreciative voice. "You're a very clever boy, Dave. Now let's come quick and pop him into the hole."
Farmer Long's six-acre field was nearly a quarter of a mile away, but the children reached it in good time, and Fly looked down with interest on the scene of David's excavations. The hole, which must have given the little boy considerable labor, was nearly three feet deep, and about a foot wide. In the bottom lay a large beef bone.
"He won't like it much!" said David. "His teeth aren't good; he can only eat chicken bones, but hunger will make him nibble it by-and-by. Now, Fly, will you go behind that furze bush and bring me a square, flat board, which you will find there?"
"What a funny board!" said Fly, returning in a moment. "It's all over little square holes."
"Those are for him to breathe through," said David. "Now, then, master, here you go! You won't annoy any one in particular here, unless, perhaps, you interfere with Mr. Bull's arrangements. Hold the board over the top of the hole, so, Fly. Now then, I hope you'll enjoy yourself, my dear amiable little friend."
The bandage which firmly bound Scorpion's mouth was removed. He was popped into the hole, and the wooden cover made fast over the top. The children went home, vowing eternal secrecy, which not even tortures should wring from them.
At breakfast that morning Mrs. Cameron appeared late on the scene. Her eyes were red with weeping. She also looked extremely cross.
"Helen, I must request you to have some fresh coffee made for me. I cannot bear half cold coffee. Daisy, have the goodness to ring the bell. Yes, my dear children, I am late. I have a sad reason for being late; the dog is nowhere to be found."
A gleam of satisfaction filled each young face. Fly crimsoning greatly, lowered her eyes; but David looked tranquilly full at Mrs. Cameron.
"Is it that nice little Scorpion?" he asked. "I'm awfully sorry, but I suppose he went for a walk."
Mrs. Cameron glanced with interest at David's sympathetic face.
"No, my dear boy, that isn't his habit. The dear little dog sleeps, as a rule, until just the last moment. Then I lift him gently, and carry him downstairs for his cream."
"I wonder how he likes that bare beef bone?" murmured Fly, almost aloud.
"He's sure to come home for his cream in a moment or two!" said David.
He gave Fly a violent kick under the table.
"Helen," said Mrs. Cameron, "be sure you keep Scorpion's cream."
"There isn't any," replied Helen. "I was obliged to send it up to father. There was not nearly so much cream as usual this morning. I had scarcely enough for father."
"You don't mean to tell me you have used up the dog's cream?" exclaimed Mrs. Cameron. "Well, really, that is too much. The little animal will starve, he can't touch anything else. Oh, where is he? My little, faithful pet! My lap feels quite empty without him. My dear children, I trust you may never love—love a little creature as I love Scorpion, and then lose him. Yes, I am seriously uneasy, the dog would not have left me of his own accord."
Here, to the astonishment of everybody, and the intense indignation of Mrs. Cameron, Fly burst into a scream of hysterical laughter, and hid her face in Polly's neck.
"What a naughty child!" exclaimed the good lady. "You have no sympathy with my pet, my darling! Speak this minute. Where is the dog, miss?"
"I expect in his grave," said Fly.
Whereupon Dave suddenly disappeared under the table, and all the others stared in wonder at Fly.
"Firefly, do you know anything?"
"I expect Scorpion is in his grave. Where is the use of making such a fuss?" responded Fly.
And she made a precipitate retreat out of the window.
All the remainder of that day was occupied in a vain search for the missing animal. Mrs. Cameron strongly suspected Firefly, but the only remark the little girl could be got to make was:
"I am sure Scorpion is in his grave."
Mrs. Cameron said that was no answer, and further insisted that the child should be severely punished. But as in reply to that, Helen said firmly that as long as father was in the house no one should punish the children but him, she felt, for the present, at least, obliged to hold her sense of revenge in check.
After Fly had gone to bed that night, David crept into her room.
"I've done it all now," he said. "I sold Scorpion to-night for a shilling to a man who was walking across the moor, and I have just popped the shilling into Mrs. Cameron's purse. The horrid little brute worked quite a big hole in the bottom of the grave, Fly, and he nearly snapped my fingers off when I lifted him out to give him to Jones. But he's away now, that's a comfort. What a silly thing you were, Fly, to burst out laughing at breakfast, and then say that Scorpion was in his grave."
"But it was so true, David. That hole looked exactly like a grave."
"But you have drawn suspicion upon you. Now, Mrs. Cameron certainly doesn't suspect me. See what she has given me: this beautiful new two-shilling piece. She said I was a very kind boy, and had done my best to find her treasure for her."
"Oh, Dave, how could you take it!"
"Couldn't I, just! I'm not a little muff, like you. I intend to buy a set of wickets with this. Well, good-night, Fly; nobody need fear hydrophobia after this good day's work."
A night's sleep had by no means improved Mrs. Cameron's temper. She came downstairs the next morning so snappish and disagreeable, so much inclined to find fault with everybody, and so little disposed to see the faintest gleam of light in any direction, that the children almost regretted Scorpion's absence, and began to wonder if, after all, he was not a sort of safety-valve for Mrs. Cameron, and more or less essential to her existence.
Hitherto this good woman had not seen her brother-in-law; and it was both Helen's and Polly's constant aim to keep her from the sick room.
It was several days now since the Doctor was pronounced quite out of danger; but the affection of his eyes which had caused his children so many anxious fears, had become much worse. As the London oculist had told him, any shock or chill would do this; and there was now no doubt whatever that for a time, at least, he would have to live in a state of total darkness.
"It is a dreadful fate," said Helen to Polly. "Oh, yes, it is a dreadful fate, but we must not complain, for anything is better than losing him."
"Anything truly," replied Polly. "Why, what is the matter, Flower? How you stare."
Flower had been lying full-length on the old sofa in the school-room; she now sprang to her feet, and came up eagerly to the two sisters.
"Could a person do this," she said, her voice trembling with eagerness—"Could such a thing as this be done: could one give their eyes away?"
"Yes, I mean it. Could I give my eyes to Dr. Maybright—I mean just do nothing at all but read to him and look for him—manage so that he should know everything just through my eyes. Can I do it? If I can, I will."
"But, Flower, you are not father's daughter," said Polly in an almost offended tone. "You speak, Flower—you speak as if he were all the world to you."
"So he is all the world to me!" said Flower. "I owe him reparation, I owe him just everything. Yes, Helen and Polly, I think I understand how to keep your father from missing his eyes much. Oh, how glad I am, how very glad I am!"
From that moment Flower became more or less a changed creature. She developed all kinds of qualities which the Maybrights had never given her credit for. She had a degree of tact which was quite astonishing in a child of her age. There was never a jarring note in her melodious voice. With her impatience gone, and her fiery, passionate temper soothed, she was just the girl to be a charming companion to an invalid.
However restless the Doctor was, he grew quieter when Flower stole her little hand into his; and when he was far too weak and ill and suffering to bear any more reading aloud, he could listen to Flower as she recited one wild ballad after another.
Flower had found her mission, and she was seldom now long away from the Doctor's bedside.
"Don't be jealous, Polly," said Helen. "All this is saving Flower, and doing father good."
"There is one comfort about it," said Polly, "that as Aunt Maria perfectly detests poor Flower, or Daisy, as she calls her, she is not likely to go into father's room."
"That is true!" said Helen. "She came to the room door the other day, but Flower was repeating 'Hiawatha,' and acting it a little bit—you know she can't help acting anything she tries to recite—and Aunt Maria just threw up her hands and rolled her eyes, and went away."
"What a comfort!" said Polly. "Whatever happens, we must never allow the dreadful old thing to come near father."
Alack! alas! something so bad had happened, so terrible a tragedy had been enacted that even Flower and Hiawatha combined could no longer keep Mrs. Cameron away from her brother-in-law's apartment.
On the second day after Scorpion's disappearance, the good woman called Helen aside, and spoke some words which filled her with alarm.
"My dear!" she said, "I am very unhappy. The little dog, the little sunbeam of my life, is lost. I am convinced, Helen! yes, I am convinced, that there is foul play in the matter. You, every one of you, took a most unwarrantable dislike to the poor, faithful little animal. Yes, every one of you, with the exception of David, detested my Scorpion, and I am quite certain that you all know where he now is."
"But really, Aunt Maria," said Helen, her fair face flushing, "really, now, you don't seriously suppose that I had anything to say to Scorpion's leaving you."
"I don't know, my dear. I exonerate David. Yes, David is a good boy; he was attached to the dog, and I quite exonerate him. But as to the rest of you, I can only say that I wish to see your father on the subject."
"Oh! Aunt Maria! you are not going to trouble father, so ill as he is, about that poor, miserable little dog?"
"Thank you, Helen! thank you! poor miserable little dog indeed. Ah! my dear, you have let the cat out of the bag now. Yes, my dear, I insist on seeing your father with regard to the poor, miserable little dog. Poor, indeed, am I without him, my little treasure, my little faithful Scorpion." Here Mrs. Cameron applied her handkerchief to her eyes, and Helen walked to the window, feeling almost driven to despair.
"I think you are doing wrong!" she said, presently. "It is wrong to disturb a man like father about any dog, however noble. I am sure I am right in saying that we, none of us, know anything about Scorpion's disappearance. However, if you like, and rather than that father should be worried, I will send for all the children, and ask them the question one by one before you. I am absolutely sure that they won't think Scorpion worth a lie."
Helen experienced some little difficulty in getting her scattered brothers and sisters together. She could not get any of them to think seriously of Scorpion's departure. They laughed and lingered over their own pursuits, and told Helen to her face that she made a great fuss about nothing; in short, the best part of an hour had gone by before the Maybrights and the two Dalrymples assembled in Mrs. Cameron's presence in the morning room.
"It is just this, children," said Helen. "Aunt Maria feels very low about Scorpion; you see she loved him." Groans here came audibly from the lips of Bob and Bunny. "Yes!" said Helen, looking severely at her two little brothers, "Aunt Maria did love Scorpion. She feels very lonely without him, and she has taken an idea into her head that one or other of you had something to say to his disappearance. Of course I know that none of you could be so cruel and heartless, but to satisfy Aunt Maria, I have asked you all to come here just to tell her that you did nothing to make Scorpion run away."
"Only we are very glad he did run away!" said Bob, "but as to touching him, why, I wouldn't with a pair of tongs."
"I wish to say a word!" said Mrs. Cameron. She came forward, and stood looking very flushed and angry before the assembled group. "I wish to say that I am sure some of you in your malice deprived me of my dog. I believe David Dalrymple to be innocent, but as to the rest of you, I may as well say that I do not believe you, whatever you may tell me."
"Well, after that!" exclaimed all the children.
"I suppose, Helen, after that we may go away?" said Firefly, who was looking very pale.
"No, Miss!" said Aunt Maria, "you must stay. Your sister Helen does not wish me to do anything to disturb your father, but I assure you, children, there are limits even to my patience, and I intend to visit him this morning and tell him the whole story, unless before you leave the room you tell me the truth."
Firefly's sallow little face grew whiter and whiter. She glanced imploringly at David, who looked boldly and unconcernedly back at her; then, throwing back his head, he marched up to Mrs. Cameron's side.
"You believe that I am innocent, don't you?" he said.
"Certainly, my dear boy. I have said so."
"In that case, perhaps you would not mind my going out a little way on the moor and having a good look round for the dog, he may have wandered there, you know, and broken his leg or something." Mrs. Cameron shuddered. "In any case," continued David, with a certain air of modest assurance, which became him very much, "it seems a pity that I should waste time here."
"Certainly; go, my dear lad," answered Mrs. Cameron. "Bring my little innocent suffering treasure back with you, and I will give you half a crown."
David instantly left the room, unheeding a short, sharp cry which issued from Firefly's lips as he passed her.
Most of the other children were laughing; it was impossible for them to think of anything in connection with Scorpion except as a joke.
"Listen, Aunt Maria," said Helen. "I am afraid you must not treat my brothers and sisters as you propose. Neither must you trouble father without the doctor's permission. The fact is, Aunt Maria, we are Maybrights, and every one who knows anything about us at all must know that we would scorn to tell a lie. Our father and our dear, dear mother—your sister whom you loved, Aunt Maria, and for whose sake you are interested in us—taught us to fear a lie more than anything, much more than punishment, much more than discovery. Oh, yes, we have heaps and heaps of faults; we can tease, we can be passionate, and idle, and selfish; but being Maybrights, being the children of our own father and mother, we can't lie. The fact is, we'd be afraid to."
Helen's blue eyes were full of tears.
"Bravo! Helen!" said Polly, going up to her sister and kissing her. "She says just the simple truth, Aunt Maria," she continued, flashing round in her bright way on the old lady. "We are a naughty set—you know that, don't you?—but we can't tell lies; we draw the line there."
"Yes, we draw the line there," suddenly said Firefly, in a high-pitched voice, which sounded as if it was going to crack.
"I admire bravery," said Mrs. Cameron, after a pause. "Ask your questions, Helen. For my dead sister's sake I will accept the word of a Maybright. 'Pon my word, you are extraordinary young people; but I admire girls who are not afraid to speak out, and who uphold their parents' teaching. Ask the children quickly, Helen, if they know anything about the dog, for after David's hint about his having strayed on that awful moor, and perhaps having broken one of his dear little legs, I feel more uncomfortable than ever about him. For goodness' sake, Helen! ask your question quickly, and let me get out on the moor to look for my dog."
"Children," said Helen, coming forward at once, "do you know anything about Scorpion's loss, anything? Now, I am going to ask you each singly; as you answer you can leave the room. Polly, I begin with you."
One by one the Maybrights and Flower answered very clear and emphatic "No's" to Helen's question, and one by one they retired to wait for their companions in the passage outside.
At last Helen put the question to Firefly. Two big, green-tinted hazel eyes were raised to her face.
"Yes, Helen, I do know," replied Firefly.
Mrs. Cameron uttered a shriek, and almost fell upon the little girl, but Helen very gently held her back.
"One minute," she said. "Firefly, what do you know?"
"I'm not going to tell you, Helen." The child's lips quivered, but her eyes looked up bravely.
"Why so? Please, Aunt Maria, let me speak to her. Why won't you tell what you know, dear Fly?"
"Because I promised. There, I won't say a word more about it. I do know, and I won't tell; no, I won't ever, ever tell. You can punish me, of course, Aunt Maria."
"So I will, Miss. Take that slap for your impertinence. Oh! if you were my child, should not I give you a whipping. You know what has happened to my poor dear little dog, and you refuse to tell. But you shall tell—you wicked cruel little thing—you shall, you must!"
"Shall I take Firefly away and question her?" asked Helen. "Please, Aunt Maria, don't be too stern with her. She is a timid little thing; she is not accustomed to people blaming her. She has some reason for this, but she will explain everything to her sister Nell, won't you, darling?"
The child's lips were trembling, and her eyes filling with tears.
"There's no use in my going away with you, Helen," she replied, steadily. "I am willing Aunt Maria should punish me, but I can't tell because I'm a Maybright. It would be telling a lie to say what I know. I don't mind your punishing me rather badly, Aunt Maria."
"Oh, you don't, don't you?" said Aunt Maria. "Listen; was not that the sound of wheels?"
"The doctor to see father," explained Helen. "I ought to go."
"Excuse me, my dear, I particularly wish to see your father's medical adviser this morning. I will not detain him long, but I have a question I wish to put to him. You stay with your little sister, Helen. I shall be back soon."
Mrs. Cameron trotted out of the room. In about ten minutes, with an exultant look on her face, she returned. Firefly was now clasped tightly in Helen's arms while she sobbed her heart out on her breast.
"Well, Helen, has this most impertinent, naughty child confessed?"
"She has not," said Helen. "I don't understand her; she seems in sore trouble. Dear little Fly!"
"'Dear little Fly,' indeed! Naughty, wicked little Fly, you mean. However, my dear, I have come to tell you that I have just had an interview with the excellent doctor who attends your father. He has gone up to see him now. He says he does not want to see you at all to-day, Helen. Well, I spoke to Dr. Strong, and he was astonished—absolutely astonished, when he heard that I had not yet been permitted to see my brother-in-law. I told him quite frankly that you girls were jealous of my influence, and used his (Dr. Strong's) name to keep me out of my poor brother's room. 'But my dear madam,' he said, 'the young ladies labor under a mistake—a vast, a monstrous mistake. Nothing could do my poor patient more good than to see a sensible, practical lady like yourself!' 'Then I may see him this afternoon?' I asked. 'Undoubtedly, Mrs. Cameron,' he replied; 'it will be something for my patient to look forward to.' I have arranged then, my dear Helen, to pay a visit to your father at three o'clock to-day."
Helen could not repress a sigh.
Mrs. Cameron raised her eyebrows with a certain suggestive and aggravating gesture.
"Ah, my dear," she said, "you must try to keep under that jealous temperament. Jealousy fostered in the heart overshadows and overclouds all life. Be warned in time."
"About this child," said Helen, drawing Firefly forward, "what is to be done about her? You will be lenient, won't you, Aunt Maria, for she is very young?"
"By the way," said Mrs. Cameron, with the manner of one who had not heard a word of Helen's last speech, "is this naughty little girl attached to her father?"
Firefly raised her tear-dimmed face.
"He is my darling——" she began.
"Ah, yes, my dear; I detest exaggerated expressions. If you love him, you can now prove it. You would not, for instance, wish to give him anxiety, or to injure him?"
"Oh, no, oh, no! I would rather die."
"Again that sentimental exaggeration; but you shall prove your words. If you have not confessed to me before three o'clock to-day all you know about the loss of my treasured dog Scorpion, I shall take you into your father's sick room, and in his presence dare you to keep your wicked secret to yourself any longer."
"Oh, you don't mean that," said Firefly. "You can't be so awfully cruel. Nell, Nell, do say that Aunt Maria doesn't mean that."
The child was trembling violently; her little face was white as death, her appealing eyes would have softened most hearts.
"Oh, Nell, what shall I do if I make father worse again? For I can't tell what I know; it would be a lie to tell it, and you said yourself, Nell, that no Maybright told lies."
Mrs. Cameron smiled grimly.
"I have said it," she remarked; "it all rests with yourself, Firefly. I shall be ready either to hear your confession or to take you to your father at three o'clock to-day."
With these words the good lady walked out of the room.
TO THE RESCUE.
An hour later a wildly anxious and disconsolate little figure might have been seen knocking at Polly's door. No answer from within. A moment of suspense on the part of the little figure, followed by another and louder knock; then the small, nervous fingers turned the handle of the door, and Firefly pushed her head in and peered anxiously round.
Oh, dear! oh, dear! No Polly was in the room. And why did the great eight-day clock in the hall strike twelve? Why, on this morning of all mornings, should time go on wings? Firefly had great faith in Polly's powers of helping her. But the moments were too precious to waste them in trying to find her. She had another search to make, and she must set out at once. No, not quite at once. She clasped her hands to her beating little heart as an idea came to her on which she might act. A delicious and yet most sorrowful idea, which would fill her with the keenest pain, and yet give her the very sweetest consolation. She would go and get a kiss from her father before she set out on the search, which might be a failure. Very swiftly she turned, flew down the long gallery which led to Dr. Maybright's room, and went in.
Dr. Strong had paid his visit and gone away. Firefly's heart gave a bound of delight, for her father was alone. He was lying supported high in bed with pillows. His almost sightless eyes were not bandaged, they were simply closed; his hands, with their long, sensitive, purposeful fingers lay on the white sheets in a restful attitude. Already the acute hearing of the blind had come to him, and as Firefly glided up to the bedside, he turned his head quickly. Her two small hands went with a kind of bound into one of his. His fingers closed over them.
"This is my Fly," said the Doctor; "a very excited and feverish Fly, too. How these small fingers flutter! What is it, my darling?"
"A kiss, father," said Fly, "a great hug of a kiss! please, please. I want it so awfully badly."
"Climb up on the bed, and put your arms round me. Is that all right? My dear little one, you are not well."
"I'm quite well, now, while I'm loving you. Oh! aren't you just the darlingest of all darling fathers? There, another kiss; and another! Now I'm better."
She glided off the bed, pressed two long, last fervent embraces on the Doctor's white hand, and rushed out of the room.
"I'm lots stronger now," she said to herself. "Whatever happens, I'll have those kisses to hold on to and remember; but nothing shall happen, for I'm going to find David; he is sure to put things right for me."
Meanwhile, Polly's absence from her room was accounted for, also the fact of Fly finding her father alone. It was seldom that this dearly loved and favorite father, physician, and friend, was left to indulge in solitude. It was the privilege of all privileges to sit by him, read to him, and listen to his talk; and a girl, generally two girls, occupied the coveted chairs by his bedside. On this morning, however, poor Helen was detained, first by Aunt Maria, and then by necessary housekeeping cares; and Polly and Flower were deeply engrossed over a matter of considerable importance.
When Polly had replied in the negative to Helen's question, she lingered for a moment in the passage outside the morning-room, then started off to find Nurse and little Pearl. Flower, however, waited with a feeling of curiosity, or perhaps something more, to hear what the others would say. She was witness, therefore, through the open door, of Firefly's curious mixture of avowal and denial, and when Mrs. Cameron went away to consult the doctor who attended Dr. Maybright, she coolly waited in an adjoining room, and when the good woman returned, once more placed herself within earshot. No Maybright would dream of eavesdropping, but Flower's upbringing had been decidedly lax with regard to this and other matters.
In full possession, therefore, of the facts of the catastrophe which was to overpower poor little Fly and injure Dr. Maybright, she rushed off to find Polly. Polly was feeling intensely happy, playing with and fondling her sweet little baby sister, when Flower, pale and excited, rushed into the room. Nurse, who had not yet forgiven Flower, turned her back upon the young lady, and hummed audibly. Flower, however, was far too much absorbed to heed her.
"Listen, Polly! you have got to come with me at once. Give baby back to Nurse. You must come with me directly."
"If it is anything more about Scorpion, I refuse to stir," answered Polly. "If there is a creature in this world whom I absolutely loathe, it's that detestable little animal!"
"You don't hate him more than I do," said Flower. "My news is about him. Still, you must come, for it also means Firefly and your father. They'll both get into awful trouble—I know they will—if we don't save them."
"What?" said Polly; "what? Take baby, please, Nurse. Now, what is it, Flower?" pulling her outside the nursery door. "What has that horrid Scorpion to do with Fly and father?"
"Only this: Fly has confessed that she knows what has become of him, but she's a dear little brick and won't tell. She says she's a Maybright, and they don't tell lies. Three cheers for the Maybrights, if they are all like Fly, say I! Well, the little love won't tell, and Mrs. Cameron is fit to dance, and what does she do but gets leave from Dr. Strong to see your father, and she's going to drag Fly before him at three o'clock to-day, and make a fine story of what happened. She holds it over Fly that your father will be made very ill again. Very likely he will, if we don't prevent it."
"It's horrible!" said Polly; "but how can we prevent it, Flower?"
"Oh, easily enough. You must guard your father's room. Let no one in under any pretense whatever until I have found David."
"What do you mean by finding David? What can David have to say to it?"
"Oh! has he not? Poor Fly! David has got her into his toils. David is at the bottom of all this, I am convinced. I guessed it the moment I saw him go up so boldly to Mrs. Cameron and pretend to be sorry about the dog. He sorry about Scorpion! He hates him more than any of us."
"But then—I don't understand; if that is so, David told a deliberate lie, Flower."
"We have not been brought up like the Maybrights," she said. "Oh, yes, we could tell a lie; we were not brought up to be particular about good things, or to avoid bad things. We were brought up—well, just anyhow."
Polly stole up to Flower and kissed her.
"I am glad you have come to learn of my father," she said. "Now do tell me what we are to do for poor, poor Fly. Do you think David is guilty, and that he has got Fly to promise not to tell?"
"Yes, that is what I think. David must be found, and got to confess, and so release Fly of her promise before three o'clock. David is a dreadful boy to find when he takes it into his head to hide on purpose; but I must look for him, and in the meantime will you guard your father, Polly?"
"As a dragon," said Polly. "You may trust me about that at least. I will go to his room at once to make all things safe, for there is really no trusting Aunt Maria when she has a scheme of vengeance with regard to that dog in her head. Good-by, Flower; I'm off to father."
Polly turned away, and Flower ran quickly downstairs. She knew she had not a moment to lose, for David, as she expressed it, was a very difficult boy to find when he took it into his head to hide himself.
Flower had not been on the moor since that dreadful day when she had taken the baby away. So much had happened since then, so many dreadful things had come to pass, that she shuddered at the bare thought of the great and desolate moorland. Nevertheless she guessed that David would hide there, and without a moment's hesitation turned her steps in the direction of Peg-Top Moor. She had walked for nearly half an hour, and had reached rather a broad extent of table-land, when she saw—their little figures plainly visible against the sky—two children, nearly a quarter of a mile away, eagerly talking together. There was not the least doubt as to their identity; the children—a boy and a girl—were David and Fly. Fly was holding David's arm, and gesticulating and talking eagerly; David's head was turned away. Flower quickened her steps almost into a run. If only she could reach the two before they parted; above all things, if she could reach them before David saw her!
Alas and alas! she was too late for this. David suddenly pushed his little companion a couple of feet away from him, and to all appearance vanished into the solid ground.
Fly, crying bitterly, began to run to meet Flower. Flower held out her arms as the little girl approached.
"What is it, Firefly? Tell me, has David confessed?"
"Oh, what do you know about it, Flower? Oh, what am I to do, what am I to do?"
"You are to go quietly home," said Flower, speaking in a voice of authority. "You are to go quietly home, and leave this matter in my hands. I know all about it, and just what David has done. He has bound you by a sort of oath, you poor little thing—you dear, brave little thing! Never mind, Fly; you leave David to me. I expect I shall find him now—that is, if you don't keep me too long talking. Go home, and leave matters to me."
"But Flower—Flower, you do comfort me a little; but Flower, it will soon be three o'clock, and then—and then—oh, dear father! Oh, it is so dreadful!"
"No, you silly mite; it is not dreadful at all. Polly is in charge of the Doctor. She is sitting with him now, and the door is locked, and the key is in Polly's pocket, and she has promised me not to open that door to any one—no, Fly, not to a hundred of your Aunt Marias—until I bring David home."
Fly's face underwent a transformation. Her big eyes looked full up into Flower's. A smile flitted across her quivering lips. With a sudden, passionate gesture, she stooped down and kissed Flower's fingers, then ran obediently back in the direction of Sleepy Hollow.
"She is a perfect little darling!" said Flower to herself. "If Master David does not rue it for making her suffer, my name is not Flower Dalrymple."
She ran on swiftly. She was always very quick and light in her movements. Soon she came to the place where David had to all appearance disappeared. She did not stay there long. She ran on to where the bracken grew thick and long, then suddenly lay flat down on the ground, and pressed her ear close to Mother Earth. What she heard did not satisfy her. She rose again, repeating the same process several times. Suddenly her eyes brightened; she raised her head, and listened attentively, then she whistled a long peculiar note. There was no answer, but Flower's face retained its watchful, intent expression. She laid her head down once more close to the ground, and began to speak, "David, David, I know you are there; there is no use in your hiding. Come here, I want you, I, Flower. I will give you two minutes, David; if you don't come then I'll keep the threat I made when you made me angry with you at Ballarat."
A perfect silence followed Flower's words. She still lay flat on the ground. One of the minutes flew by.
"I'll keep my word, David!" she said again. "You know me; you know what my threat means. Three-quarters of a minute more, half a minute, then I'll go home, and I'll do what I said I would do when you made me angry at Ballarat."
Again there was silence, but this time quickly broken; a boy's black head appeared above the bracken, a little brown hand was held out, and David, without troubling himself to move a hair's breadth, looked full into his sister's face.
"I don't want to lose you, Flower!" he said. "You are the only person in all the world I care two-pence about. Now what's the row?"
"You're a cowardly boy, David, and I'm ashamed of you; come with me this minute."
OH, FIE! POLLY.
While these events were taking place, and the children in their various ways were preparing checkmate for Aunt Maria Cameron, that good lady was having a by no means unexciting experience of her own. After her housekeeping cares were over, after she had interviewed Mrs. Power, and made Alice thoroughly uncomfortable; after, in short, meaning it all the while for the best, she had succeeded in jarring the whole household machinery to the utmost, it was her custom morning after morning to retire with Scorpion into the seldom used drawing-room, and there, seated comfortably in an old-fashioned arm-chair, with her feet well supported on a large cushion, and the dog on her lap, to devote herself to worsted work. Not crewel work, not church embroidery, not anything which would admit of the use of modern art colors, but genuine, old-fashioned worsted work. Mrs. Cameron delighted in the flaring scarlets, pinks, greens, blues, and mauves of thirty years ago. She admired with all her soul the hard, staring flowers which these colors produced. They looked, she said, substantial and durable. They looked like artificial flowers; nobody could mistake them for the real article, which was occasionally known to be the case with that flimsy, in her opinion, ugly, art embroidery. No, no, Mrs. Cameron would not be smitten by the art craze. "Let nature be nature!" she would say, "and worsted work be worsted work, and don't let us try to clash the poor things into one, as that wretched art-school is always endeavoring to do." So each morning Mrs. Cameron plied her worsted needle, and Scorpion slumbered peacefully on her knee. She liked to sit with her back to the light, so that it should fall comfortably on her work, and her own eyes be protected from an extensive and very beautiful view of the south moor.
Mrs. Cameron hated the moor; it gave her, as she expressed it, "the creeps," and on all occasions she avoided looking at it. On this morning, as usual, she took out her large roll of worsted work, and prepared to ground a huge, impossible arum lily. Her thoughts, however, were not, as usual, with her work. Her cheeks were flushed, and her whole face expressed annoyance and anxiety.
"How I miss even his dear little playful bite!" she said aloud, a big tear falling on her empty lap. "Ah, my Scorpion! why did I love you, but to lose you? How true are the poet's words:
'I never loved a dear gazelle.'
Well, I must say it, I seldom came across more wicked, heartless children than the Maybrights and Daisy Rymple. David is really the only one of the bunch worth rearing. Ah, my poor sister! your removal has doubtless spared you many sorrows, for what could you expect of the future of such a family as yours? Now, what is that? This moor is enough to keep anybody's nerves in a state of tension. What is that awful sound approaching the house?"
The noise in question was the unmistakable one of a woman's loud sobbing. It came nearer and nearer, gaining in fullness and volume as it approached the house.
Mrs. Cameron was always intensely curious. She threw open the drawing-room window; and as the sufferer approached, effectually stopped her progress with her own stout person.
"Now, my dear, good creature, what is this most unpleasant sound? Don't you know that it is frightfully bad-mannered to cry in that loud, unrestrained fashion? Pray restrain yourself. You are quite childish. You cannot know what real affliction means. Now, if you had lost a—a—— If, my poor woman, you had lost a dear little dog!"
"Is it a dog?" gasped Mrs. Ricketts, for it was she. "Is it a dog? Oh, my word! Much you know about 'flictions and such-like! Let me go to the house, ma'am. It isn't to you as I has come to tell my tale."
"Then let me inform you that you are going to tell it to no one else. Here I stand, and here I remain until you choose to explain to me the reason of your loud bursts of uncontrollable grief. During the illness of its master I am the mistress here, and either you speak to me or you go home."
Mrs. Ricketts had by this time so far restrained her sobs as to be able to take a long and very acute glance at the lady in question. Doubtless she was face to face with the formidable Mrs. Cameron, that terrible personage who had got her Maggie dismissed, and who had locked up poor darling Miss Polly for days in her bedroom.
There was no one, perhaps, in the world whom Mrs. Ricketts more cordially disliked than this good lady, but all the same, it was now her policy to propitiate her. She smoothed, therefore, her brow, dried her eyes, and, with a profound courtesy, began her tale.
"Ef you please, ma'am, it's this way; it's my character that's at stake. I always was, and always will be, honest of the honest. 'Ard I works, ma'am, and the bread of poverty I eats, but honest I am, and honest I brings up those fatherless lambs, my children."
Mrs. Cameron waved one of her fat hands impressively.
"Pardon me, my good woman. I am really not interested in your family. Pray come to the point, and then go home."
"To the p'int, ma'am? Oh, yes, I'll come to the p'int. This is the p'int ef you please, ma'am," and she suddenly thrust, almost into Mrs. Cameron's dazzled face, the splendid gleam and glitter of a large unset diamond. "This is the p'int, ma'am; this is what's to take my character away, and the bread out of the mouths of my innocent children."
Mrs. Cameron never considered herself a worldly woman. She was undoubtedly a very Christian-minded, charitable, good woman, but all the same, she loved fine houses and big dinners and rich apparel, and above all things she adored jewelry. Flowers—that is, natural flowers—had never yet drawn a smile out of her. She had never pined for them or valued them, but jewels, ah! they were worth possessing. She quite gasped now, as she realized the value of the gem which Mrs. Ricketts so unceremoniously thrust under her nose.
"A diamond! Good gracious! How did you come by it? A most valuable diamond of extraordinary size. Give it to me this moment, my good dear creature! and come into the drawing-room. You can step in by this open window. We won't be disturbed in here. I suppose you were weeping in that loud and violent manner at the thought of the grief of the person who had lost this treasure?"
"No, ma'am, I were a sobbing at the grief of her what 'ad it. Oh, my word! And the young lady said for sure as I'd get nine-and-fourpence halfpenny for it. No, ma'am, I won't go into the 'ouse, thank you. Oh, dear! oh, dear! the young lady did set store by it, and said for certain I'd get my nine-and-fourpence halfpenny back, but when I took the stone to the shop to-day, and asked the baker to give me some bread and let this go partly to pay the account, he stared at me and said as I wasn't honest, and he thrust it back in my hand. Oh, dearie me! oh, dearie me! the foreign young lady shouldn't have done it!"
"I am very sure that you're honest, my good creature! Now, do tell me about this stone. How did you come by it?"
"It was the young lady, ma'am; the young lady from Australia."
"Daisy Rymple, do you mean?"
"Miss Flower she called herself, ma'am. She come to me in sore plight late one evening, when we was all in bed, and 'Mrs. Ricketts,' said she, dear lamb, 'will you help me to go away to Mrs. Cameron, to Bath? I want the money to go third class to Bath. Can you let me have nine shillings and fourpence halfpenny, Mrs. Ricketts? and I'll give you this for the money!' and she flashed that bit of a glittering stone right up into my eyes. My word, I thought as I was blinded by it. 'You'll get most like two pounds for it, Mrs. Ricketts,' she said, 'for my father told me it was worth a sight of money.' That's how I come by it, ma'am, and that's the way I was treated about it to-day."
Mrs. Cameron slowly drew out her purse.
"I will give you two sovereigns for the stone!" she said. "There, take them and go home, and say nothing about the money. It will be the worse for you if you do; now go quickly home."
Mrs. Ricketts' broad face was one glow of delight. She dropped another courtesy, and tried to articulate some words of thanks, but Mrs. Cameron had already disappeared into the drawing-room, where she now sat, holding the diamond in the palm of her open hand.
She knew enough about precious stones to guess at something of its probable value. The idea of in this way possessing herself of Flower's diamond never for a moment entered her head, but she was worldly-minded enough to wish that it could be her own, and she could not help owning to a feeling of satisfaction, even to a sense of compensation for the loss of Scorpion, while she held the beautiful glittering thing in her open palm.
Even Flower rose in her estimation when she found that she had possessed a gem so brilliant. A girl who could have such a treasure and so lightly part with it was undoubtedly a simpleton—but she was a simpleton who ought to be guarded and prized—the sort of young innocent who should be surrounded by protecting friends. Mrs. Cameron felt her interest in Flower growing and growing. Suppose she offered to release the Doctor of this wearisome burden. Suppose she undertook the care of Flower and her diamond herself.
No sooner did this thought occur to Mrs. Cameron, than she resolved to act upon it. Of course the Doctor would be delighted to part with Flower. She would see him on the subject at once.
She went slowly upstairs and knocked with a calm, steady hand at the door of the dressing-room which opened into Dr. Maybright's apartment. No sound or reply of any kind came from within. She listened for a moment, then knocked again, then tried to turn the handle of the door. It resisted her pressure, being locked from within.
Mrs. Cameron raised her voice. She was not a person who liked to be opposed, and that locked door, joined to that most exasperating silence, became more than trying. Surely the Doctor was not deaf as well as blind. Surely he must hear her loud demands, even though a dressing-room stood between his room and the suppliant without.
And surely the Doctor would have heard, for a more polite man never lived, were it not for that all mischievous and irrepressible Polly. But she, being left in charge, had set her sharp brains to work, and had devised a plan to outwit Mrs. Cameron. The dressing-room in question contained a double baize door. This door was seldom or never used, but it came in very conveniently now, for the furtherance of Polly's plan. When it was shut, and thick curtains also drawn across, and when, in addition, the door leading into Dr. Maybright's room was securely fastened and curtained off, Polly felt sure that she and her father might pass their morning in delicious quietude. Not hearing Mrs. Cameron, she argued with herself that no one could possibly blame her for not letting her in. Therefore, in high good humor, this young lady sat down to read, work, and chatter gayly. As the Doctor listened, he said to himself that surely there never was in the world a sweeter or more agreeable companion than his Polly.
With all her precautions, however, as the hours flew by, sundry muffled and distant sounds did penetrate to the sick chamber.
"What a peculiar noise!" remarked the Doctor.
"Can it be mice?" queried Polly's most innocent voice.
More time passed.
Suddenly the sharp and unmistakable sound of gravel being flung against the window forced the young lady to go to ascertain what was the matter.
On looking out, she saw what caused her to utter an amazed exclamation.
Mrs. Cameron, very red in the face, and holding the lost Scorpion in one encircling arm, while the other was thrown firmly round a most sulky-looking David; Firefly, pale and with traces of tears on her face; Flower, looking excited and eager—all stood under the window. This group were loud in demanding instant admission to the Doctor's room.
"What is it, what is it?" questioned the patient from the bed.
"Oh, you are not strong enough to see them, father."
"To see whom?"
"Aunt Maria—Scorpion—the children."
"Yes, I am quite strong enough. Let them come up at once."
"But Polly! You don't suppose seriously that your Aunt Maria can disturb my equanimity?"
"Oh! She will worry you with so many tales."
"About my very naughty family?"
"Yes, yes; you had much better not see her."
"Because she wants me to get a chaperon for you?"
"Oh! yes—oh! don't see her."
"My dear, you can trust me; you happen to be my children, not hers. I would rather have the matter out. I knew there was something wrong from the way little Fly kissed my hand this morning. Show the deputation outside the window into the audience chamber at once, Polly."
So admonished, the curtains had to be drawn back, the baize door reopened, and Polly—a most unwilling hostess—had to receive her guests. But no words can describe the babel of sounds which there and then filled the Doctor's room; no words can tell how patiently the blind man listened.
Aunt Maria had a good tale to tell, and it lost nothing in the telling. The story of Scorpion's disappearance; of the wickedness of David and Fly; of the recovering of the little animal from the man who had bought it, through Flower's instrumentality; all this she told, following up with the full and particular history of the sale of a valuable diamond. At last—at long last—the good lady stopped for want of breath.
There was a delicious pause, then the Doctor said, quietly:
"In short, Maria, you have never come across such absolutely wicked children as the Maybrights and Dalrymples?"
"No, Andrew—never! never!"
"It is lucky they are not your children?"
"Would it not be well to leave them to me? I am accustomed to them."
"Yes; I wash my hands of you all; or no—not quite of you all—I heap coals of fire on your head, Andrew; I offer to relieve you of the charge of Daisy Rymple."
"Of Flower?—but she is one of the worst of us."
Here Flower ran over, crouched down by the Doctor, and put one of her hands into his.
"But I will be good with you," she said with a half-sob.
"Hear her," said the Doctor. "She says she will be good with me. Perhaps, after all, Maria, I can manage my own children better than any one else can."
"Daisy is not your child—you had better give her to me."
"I can't part with Flower; she is an excellent reader. I am a blind man, but she scarcely allows me to miss my eyes."
Flower gave a low ecstatic sob.
"And you will allow her to part with valuable gems like this?"
"Thanks to you, Maria, she has recovered her diamond."
"Andrew, I never met such an obstinate, such a misguided man! Are you really going to bring up these unfortunate children without a chaperon?"
"I think you must allow us to be good and naughty in our own way."
"Father is looking very tired, Aunt Maria," here whispered Polly.
"My dear, I am never going to fatigue him more. Andrew, I wash my hands of your affairs. Daisy, take your diamond. At least, my little precious dog, I have recovered you. We return to Bath by the next train."
ONE YEAR AFTER.
"Helen, here's a letter."
"Yes. Who is it for?"
"I think it's for us all. See: 'the Misses Maybright and Miss Dalrymple.'"
"Well, where's Flower? We can't open it till Flower comes down. It must be—yes, it must be about father! You know it was yesterday his eyes were to be operated on."
"As if I didn't know it, Nell! I never closed my eyes last night. I felt nearly as bad as that awful day a year ago now. I wish I might tear open this envelope. Where is Flower? Need we wait for her?"
"It would be unkind not to wait! No one feels about father as Flower does."
"David, please call her this instant!"
David flew out of the room, and Polly began to finger the precious letter.
"It's thick," she said; "but I don't think there's much writing inside. Yes," she continued, "Flower is certainly very sensitive about father. She's a dear girl. All the same, I'm sometimes jealous of her."
"Oh, dear Polly! why?"
"Father thinks so much of her. Yes, I know it's wrong, but I do feel a little sore now and then. Not often though, and never when I look into Flower's lovely eyes."
"She is very sweet with father," said Helen. "It seems to me that during this past year she has given up her very life to him. And did you ever hear any one read better?"
"No, that's one of the reasons why I'm devoured with jealousy. Don't talk to me about it, it's an enemy I haven't yet learnt to overcome. Ah! here she comes."
"And Fly, and the twins!" echoed Helen. "Here's a letter from father, Flower. At least, we think so. It's directed to us and to you."
A tall, very fair girl, with soft, shining eyes, and a wonderful mane of yellow hair came up and put her arm round Polly's neck. She did not smile, her face was grave, her voice shook a little.
"Open the letter, Helen," she exclaimed impatiently.
"Don't tremble so, Flower," said Polly.
But she herself only remained quiet by a great effort, as Helen unfastened the thick envelope, opened the sheet of paper, and held it up for many eager pairs of eyes to read:
"My Children:—I see again, thank God. "Your Father and loving Friend."
"There!" said Polly. "Oh, I can't talk about it. Flower, you are silly to cry. Will no one dance a hornpipe with me? I'll choke if I don't laugh. You're the one to dance, Fly. Why, you are crying, too. Ridiculous! Where's the letter? Let's kiss it all round. That'll make us better. His own blessed writing! Isn't he a darling? Was there ever such a father?"
"Or such a friend?" exclaimed Flower. "I said long ago, and I say again now, that he's the best man in the world, and I do really think that some day he'll turn me into a good girl."
"Why, you're the nicest girl I know now," said Polly.
And then they kissed each other.
Transcriber's Notes —————————-
1. Punctuation has been normalized to contemporary standards.
2. Frontispiece relocated to after title page.
3. Typographic errors corrected in original: p. 7 aways to always ("always did think") p. 8 breat-and-butter to bread-and-butter p. 102 nuseries to nurseries ("to the nurseries") p. 154 by to my ("jealous of my influence") p. 159 life to like ("looked like artificial flowers")